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Counterintelligence. Throughout U.S. military history, the term counterintelligence has referred to both an activity and a type of secret information. As the former, counterintelligence is designed to neutralize information gathering by foreign powers. In its guise as a kind of intelligence, counterintelligence consists of data on the personalities and modus operandi of other espionage services and systems. There is an important distinction between security and counterintelligence. Security involves monitoring and closing channels by which state secrets might reach unauthorized individuals or groups; whereas counterintelligence implies the use of such channels to identify, mislead, and frustrate foreign intelligence services seeking to gather those secrets. Counterespionage, the study and combatting of foreign spies, is a subset of counterintelligence.

Counterintelligence was not unknown to the founding fathers. The case of Benedict Arnold, for example, helped to shape republican ideas about loyalty and treason. Yet the Secret Service was the only counterintelligence institution to emerge from U.S. military experiences from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War. Allan Pinkerton, the chief of the Secret Service, served as President Abraham Lincoln's security officer before joining the staff of Gen. George B. McClellan. Following the war, Congress provided a legal foundation for Pinkerton's Secret Service. But loath to retain a presidential or even a military police force, Congress placed the Secret Service in the treasury department and restricted its operations to security against counterfeiting. Only in 1908 would the Secret Service again assume responsibility for protecting the president.

For most of the nineteenth century, the army and navy shared the view held by Congress that counterintelligence was a form of detective work which was incompatible with the American military tradition. So deeply held was this belief that the military reforms of the 1880s that created the first peacetime military intelligence bureaus—the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the Military Intelligence Division (MID)—did not produce any counterintelligence units within the services. Even with the host of new threats that accompanied the rise of the United States as a world power at the end of the nineteenth century, the army and the navy preferred to contract out counterintelligence work instead of risking institutional contamination. During the Spanish‐American War and the 1907 war scare with Japan, the services engaged Secret Service officers to investigate possible foreign espionage activity. The sole exception was the counterespionage mission undertaken by the U.S. army as part of its pacification of the Philippines.

The traditional obstacles to counterintelligence eroded in World War I. Suspicious explosions like Black Tom at munitions facilities and the advent of energetic advocates of counterespionage were the cause. For the first time, the U.S. army and the navy created separate “negative” bureaus for counterintelligence and a Counterintelligence Police (CIP) was recruited to protect Gen. John Pershing's American Expeditionary Force. Interest in institutionalizing counterintelligence work emerged throughout the federal government. The Justice Department set up a General Intelligence Division (GID) under an ambitious young lawyer, J. Edgar Hoover, to investigate radicalism and subversion in the U.S., and Woodrow Wilson asked the State Department to coordinate these new federal counter espionage programs.

Although World War I had institutionalized counter espionage in the military, no federal agency, civilian or military, considered foreign spying enough of a threat to warrant having a peacetime counterespionage service. Following the excesses of the Red Scare of 1919, the Justice Department closed its GID. Meanwhile the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the Military Intelligence Division (MID) were reduced in size, and the Counterintelligence Police (CIP) nearly disappeared entirely. Consequently when the U.S. government confronted the problem of German spying in the late 1930s, none of the established members of the national security state had a counter espionage program.

Counterintelligence was the first field of secret activity addressed by the Roosevelt administration when it took stock of an increasingly hostile world in 1938. Consistent with his general philosophy of leadership, President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to divide responsibility for counterintelligence between the FBI, which coordinated it at home and throughout most of the Western hemisphere, and the army and navy. The army received exclusive responsibility for counterintelligence on army bases, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippines. Aside from fleet security, the navy received the nod for Hawaii and Guam. Otherwise the services had an overlapping interest in all of the Eastern hemisphere. The entry of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) into the U.S. intelligence system in 1942 did nothing to improve coordination among the existing services. Ultimately creating its own counterintelligence service in 1943, the OSS went into competition with the army's Counterintelligence Corps and the Office of Naval Intelligence.

The debate following World War II involved not whether there should be counterespionage in peacetime but who should control it and what its targets should be. In 1947 the National Security Council subordinated all U.S. foreign intelligence and counterintelligence to the newly created Director of Central Intelligence, whose responsibilities included running the Central Intelligence Agency and directing Washington's nascent intelligence community. National Security Council Intelligence Directive‐5, which established DCI leadership in foreign clandestine activities, removed the responsibility for counterintelligence in the Western hemisphere from the FBI and limited the military to conducting counterintelligence only as required to protect military installations and operations.

The new position of DCI threatened what the military considered to be its traditional prerogatives in wartime. With the intensification of the Cold War following the successful detonation of the Soviet Union's first nuclear device in 1949, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to establish the principle that all foreign clandestine activity, including counterintelligence, would be transferred to its authority in wartime. In 1951, at the height of the Korean War, the Joint Chiefs made their most serious effort to revise NSCID‐5 to permit them to supervise U.S. clandestine activities as they had OSS operations between 1942 and 1945. The DCI, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, successfully turned away these efforts.

As the Cold War continued, the military services grew increasingly reluctant to accept a secondary position in overseas counterintelligence. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's 1961 initiative to reform military intelligence coincided with another attempt by the services to weaken the CIA's authority in counterintelligence. The U.S. military recommended the formation of a security subcommittee of the United States Intelligence Board, the executive oversight organization for intelligence, in the hope of acquiring more of a voice in setting counterintelligence policy.

The military had more than institutional interests at heart. The CIA's counterintelligence efforts in its first decade had not been well regarded. The CIA's earliest operations in Eastern Europe were riddled with penetrations, and its tiny counterintelligence force had few successful exploitations of double agents to its credit. Even the agency's counterespionage experts considered their specialty but the stepchild of the organization. Notwithstanding this less‐than‐brilliant reputation in counterintelligence, the CIA was able to fend off military challenges to its supervisory control.

As president, Richard M. Nixon responded to the weaknesses in U.S. counterintelligence with the so‐called Huston plan, which envisioned White House coordination of these activities. Nixon believed that a more efficient federal program would produce evidence of Soviet assistance to the peace and antiwar movements. The military counterintelligence units had maintained domestic operations on and off since World War I. In the 1960s, domestic counterintelligence operations by the U.S. army grew and coordination with other services became a problem. Opposition from J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, however, thwarted the Nixon reforms and responsibility for counterespionage remained divided. The spate of spy cases in the 1980s, culminating in the “Year of the Spy” of 1985, brought the creation of a counterintelligence subcommittee in the National Security Council.
[See also Intelligence, Military and Political; National Security Act (1947).]


Jeffrey M. Dorwart , The Office of Naval Intelligence: The Birth of America's First Intelligence Agency, 1965–1918, 1979.
Thomas F. Troy , Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1981.
Robert J. Lamphere, with and Tom Shachtman , The FBI‐KGB War: A Special Agent's Story, 1986.
Roy Talbert, Jr. , Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917–1941, 1991.

Timothy J. Naftali


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Counter-intelligence is the use of intelligence resources to identify, circumvent, and neutralize the intelligence activities of a foreign power. That foreign power may be an enemy nation or a putative ally. In the United States, counter-intelligence is overseen from the Counter-intelligence Center (CIC) of the Central Intelligence Agency

(CIA), although a number of intelligence and law enforcement agencies are concerned with counter-intelligence to some degree.

Not only has the United States faced spying by Soviet and Eastern Bloc, Chinese, and Cuban operatives, but also by semi-friendly nations such as France or Indonesia, and by outright allies such as South Korea and Israel. According to testimony given before the House Permanent Select Committee in 2000 by Paul Redmond, former CIA associate deputy director of operations for counter-intelligence, some 41 countries were at that time attempting to spy on the United States. Given the size of the threat posed by foreign intelligencewhich seeks to gain information on the technology and activities of the U.S. government, its agencies, and the militaryfederal authorities have sought to keep in place an effective counter-intelligence network. This involves not only operators, or front-line personnel involved in direct contact with foreign intelligence agents, but also analysts, whose job it is to study wiretap transcripts, surveillance reports, and other materials on the activities of foreign agents.

While the CIA holds the principal role in counterintelligence among U.S. agencies, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whose primary responsibility is law enforcement, has a counter-intelligence role. Sometimes this can be inadvertent; FBI agents, rather than their counterparts in the CIA, apprehended Soviet operative John Walker in 1985. Actual FBI counter-intelligence is concerned with investigating terrorist threats and other attempts to disrupt infrastructure or operations in the United States. (Ironically, an FBI counter-intelligence agent, Robert Hanssen, was exposed in 2001 as a spy of long standing for the Soviets and later Russia.)

Counter-intelligence may involve the employment of double agents, the planting of false information, or other efforts to undermine the intelligence-gathering activities of foreign nations. The agency conducting counter-intelligence may, when it has detected and identified foreign intelligence operatives, elect to keep those persons in place and not expose or arrest themat least not for a timein order to cause further detriment to the opposing intelligence agency by passing disinformation to the operative. This is a particularly likely option if the foreign agency represents a hostile power, rather than a friendly nation.


Davis, James Kirkpatrick. Spying on America: The FBI's Domestic Counter-intelligence Program. New York: Praeger, 1992.

Godson, Roy. Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards: U.S. Covert Action and Counter-intelligence. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1995.

Olson, James M. "The Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence." Studies in Intelligence no. 11 (fall-winter 2001).

Parrish, Michael. The Lesser Terror: Soviet State Security, 19391953. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, third edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.


Domestic Intelligence
Intelligence and Counterespionage Careers


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coun·ter·es·pi·o·nage / ˌkountərˈespēəˌnäzh; -ˌnäj/ • n. activities designed to prevent or thwart spying by an enemy.


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coun·ter·in·tel·li·gence / ˌkountərinˈteləjəns/ • n. activities designed to prevent or thwart spying, intelligence gathering, and sabotage by an enemy or other foreign entity.